Bereaved Families Decry Obama Administration’s Dubious Drone Strike Figures

News & Politics

This month, for the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama acknowledged that civilians in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen have been killed by drone strikes under his watch. According to a three-page paper published by the Obama administration, between 64 and 116 civilians have been killed from 2009-2015.

Though the numbers were faithfully reproduced by international media as an accurate representation of the American drone war in the Middle East and parts of Africa, there are many reasons to view the paper as highly dubious.

Even according to the most conservative estimates, the administration’s numbers represent just a tiny fraction of all drone victims. The published paper excludes countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, which are all considered “conventional war zones.” This is in spite of the fact that Hellfire missiles have rained down on all three countries since the beginning of the so-called war on terror. In fact, Afghanistan is the world's most drone-bombed country since 9/11.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the upper limit of the civilian death toll from drone strikes stands at more than 1,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. More than 800 people should have been killed during Obama’s presidency. The bureau's research made clear that just 4 percent of Pakistan's known drone victims were identified as Al-Qaeda members.

“The recent data release is a welcome step towards greater transparency in American military conduct. However, we still don't have information on specific strikes, particularly regarding several attacks that killed significant numbers of civilians, according to our monitoring," says the Bureau's Jack Serle.

Serle continued: “This makes it impossible to reconcile our civilian casualty figures with theirs. The White House hasn't even broken down the figures by year or by country, leaving us none the wiser as to how the drone war has progressed since the first strike of Obama's presidency, on January 23, 2009, killed at least nine civilians.”

The Obama administration also claims that between 2009 and 2015, 473 drone strikes killed between 2,372 and 2,581 “terrorist combatants” in the four mentioned countries. It is a known fact that Washington defines military-aged males in every strike zone as “militants.”

Last May, when a drone strike in Pakistan's Balochistan province killed Afghan Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in a taxi cab, numerous civilians were also killed, including the driver, Mohammad Azam, a family man who had no involvement in armed insurgency and had no idea about the identity of his passenger. After Mansour's death was reported, the myth of the precise drone strike that only kills militants was trotted out. In its coverage of the attack, the New York Times made no mention of Azam, noting only the Taliban target as a casualty. (After Mansour's death was confirmed by the Taliban, he was succeeded by Haibtullah Akhundzada.)

“My brother was innocent and extremely poor. He had four children and was the only bread earner of the family. U.S. officials killed my brother while violating the Pakistani area. I don't know the names of these officials but I want them facing justice," Azam's brother, Mohammad Qasim, told AlterNet.

“We want justice," said Hajji Khuda-i-Nazar, one of Azam's uncles. “We want to bring the perpetrators of the drone strikes to justice. Like many other victims, my nephew was innocent and had no links with any terror group," he insisted. Azam's family has lodged a demand for an investigation into his killing.

For years, the Pakistani government has implicitly tolerated U.S. drone strikes on its territory. Most of them take place in provinces bordering Afghanistan like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the federally administered tribal areas (FATA). The recent drone strike in Balochistan was the first in the region and might have been a sign that the White House is expanding its drone war in the region. There is significant reason to believe that Pakistan's infamous intelligence service, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), is assisting the CIA in coordinating targets.

For the bereaved families of drone strike victims, the path to justice is difficult. One person who knows this very well is Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer who represents drone strike victims. In 2013, when drone victims were invited for the first time to Congress, Akbar, then their legal representative, was not allowed to enter the United States. Akbar faced similar attempts to limit his entry on two previous trips to the U.S.

Akbar, a legal fellow of the British human rights group Reprieve and the director of the Pakistan-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights, expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s drone death figures. “The numbers are too low,” he complained. “It doesn't change anything or add anything new. The CIA has published uncertain numbers before as well. To me, it seems that they are still unsure who they have killed.”

"In 2006, just a single strike killed at least 80 children in Pakistan,” Akbar added. “And now we should believe that these numbers represent the casualties for four countries? What are the identities of those declared civilians? Can we have names? What is the U.S. going to do next? Offering compensation or an apology?“

Only one thing could be more troubling than the faceless and nameless status of so many civilian victims of drone strikes; that Obama can openly confess he signed off on the killing of innocent people, and get away with it.

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